Monday, June 13, 2022

My Piano Tuner's Romanticism

I've gathered a stable of titans. My massage therapist is a miracle healer (as umpteen of my friends have discovered, you don't need to even tell him what hurts; his fingers find, and rapidly fix, the problem, and that's that). The guy who cleans my car (I originally wrote about him here, and then again, recently, here) can, quite seriously, make cars look better than they did in the showroom (my theory is that he changes how light reflects off the car via a zillion strokes of his cleaning putty - like a Renaissance artist applying dabs of fresco). And my plumber may be the world's best brewer. Actually, he's my ex-plumber, having finally gone pro in the beer world, working here and here, though his full genius has not quite scaled. His commercial output is very good - worth going out of your way for - but not yet as mind-bending as his home brew.

There are others, but let's cut to the chase. My piano tuner, Lou, happens to be one of America's best contemporary composers.
He's also a good piano tuner. The thing you need to understand about piano tuners is that they hate your piano. Doesn't matter what piano. Piano tuners are fussily pedantic perfectionists, predisposed to exasperation, and no piano can be perfectly tuned (they're fiendishly complicated boxes which swell and contract from minor climate variations). This makes the entire proposition - i.e. their livelihood - a complete horror. But Lou is a good piano tuner because he doesn't quite curse my piano out loud. He does his best with my turd of a (very nice) 1959 Chickering baby grand (same year/model Bill Evans kept at home), and he walks away (with fistfuls of my money), his unbridled contempt stoically veiled. A consummate professional!
Louis Pelosi's compositional work merits thorough examination. But while I've played a decent amount of contemporary classical music, it's not really my thing. So I'm not the guy to write it, nor is this the place to publish it. I'd recommend a deep dive into his web site, full of sound excerpts (start with "Twelve Etudes for Piano"). I'll just use his work as a launching pad for some broad thoughts on music, and creativity, generally.

There's a word that frequently comes up with Lou - sorry, Louis. Mr. Pelosi. "Romanticism". Usually it's something like this: "While thoroughly modern in most facets, Pelosi always has one foot firmly set in Romanticism." They say it like he's defiantly holding on to Old Ways. They mean he's a bit conservative, or even - seethingly insulting to a modern composer - traditional.

I’ve never seen a really satisfying definition of Romanticism, so I’ll roll my own. Romanticism, when it comes to art, is the deliberate arrangement of artistic events into a dramatic contour intended to create emotional engagement with the audience.
There's a Japanese word for the pace of unfolding events in an art form, and it's almost entirely unheard-of outside of Japan: "Ma". Think about "Ma" - make it the thing you listen/watch/taste for - and you'll reframe your appreciation interestingly.
More simply put, Romanticism is storytelling. And that's widely considered reactionary, because we're still coming to terms with a rather extreme shift orchestrated (hee-hee) by 20th century composers. Like all extremists, this crop defined themselves by their transgressiveness. For them, Romanticism is your father's music. It's gross.
"You might as well go all the way and don a straw hat and pick up a banjo if you're concerned with emotions and engagement and all that corny showbiz bullshit!" I hear them shouting from their graves.
That generation - primarily snooty academicians, naturally - prized a dryly intellectual approach and produced radical music impossible to listen to. They shunned any hint of romanticism, which struck them as juvenile and unserious as stringing up garish Christmas lights on one's appallingly bourgeois abode.

These days, classical composers find themselves adrift in the backwash of that extremism, and it can be hard to find one's bearings. If one manages to forge a coherent and persuasive compositional style that's modernly unchained yet also emotional - dare I say, Romantic - you'll be seen - even by those who don't share the radical frosty severity of a Schoenberg or a Webern - as reactionary.

I've been listening to Lou Mr. Pelosi's work for years now, and recently realized I'd unwittingly bought into this. All this time, I've been discretely appreciative of the emotional coherence and tasteful unfoldment, which make his output more accessible. More "musical", if that's not another taboo term. But as I listened to the dazzling performance of his work at Merkin Hall in NYC this Spring, I finally realized I'd bought into utter hogwash.

Romanticism is not a trend. It does not connotate an era or school. One may depart from it, or even reject it, but it's been the default approach to art for all eternity, and will continue to thrive forever. Telling stories with a coherent dramatic contour arranged to evoke a given emotional response is not "old school", unless Fire and The Wheel are "old school". If you design triangular tires, I'll salute your creativity, but, when your contemporaries persist in designing round ones, it doesn't make them fuddy-duddies.

Lou Mr. Pelosi's work is "grounded" modernism - free-wheeling, often dissonant, inventiveness arranged in a coherent, engaging manner that Handel might, with effort, find affinity with.

Note that I said "manner", not "structure". Novice composers pay great attention to structure. An etude is, primarily, an etude; a chorale a chorale. But real artists regard structural norms as mere scaffolding; a throwaway framework - a mere propositional excuse, really - for organizing the deeper thing they actually do. A chef might serve a smaller portion of pasta at lunch than at dinner, but it's the same cooking; he's not thinking "LUNCH". A great chef barely acknowledges framework - yadda yadda like whether wait staff wears bikinis or tuxedos. It's all about the food!

Handel would not find a single structure in this music he'd feel comfortable with. He'd experience the full violence of the gradual unchaining by which generations of composers have freed themselves, and with which our modern ears have grown gradually more or less comfortable. But he'd still dig the Romanticism. Not because it's of his time, and thus stuck-in-the-mud, but because it's grounded in the terra firma of humanity's eternal relationship with art.

Mateusz Borowiak, a young Polish-British pianist, is the most frequent performer of Lou Mr. Pelosi's music, and he's a gem. The Japanese "ma" I mentioned above - the pace of unfolding of events in an art form - is something Borowiak has mastered (normally, one must be ancient, with throbbing arthritic fingers; e.g. check out the immortal Michal Hambourg). This comes in addition to his technical mastery - never wielded as a raison d'ĂȘtre - and his delightfully juicy, "go-for-it" gleeful passion (passionate glee?). Check him out, he's about the best guy out there, for my taste (we all keep expecting him to explode into massive fame and champagne and limos, but perhaps 2022 isn't the era for that).

But how does classical piano relate to the cheesy cake of El Salvador? Here's your answer!

My proudest writing on music composition is a piece seemingly no one can get through. But since I do try my damndest to be coherent, digestible, and emotionally engaging (I'm very much a romantic), I'd be grateful if you'd at least take a stab at "Shostakovich, Eddie Barefield, and The Evolution of Western Art"

Here are all postings tagged "music", in reverse-chronological order

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